Language Reluctance in the Heritage Language Classroom

overcoming shyness in the heritage language classroom

For all of us who have taught bilingual students in their heritage language, we know that there are definitely different “levels” of bilingualism within the native speaker classroom. Language use can play out in many different ways: students who are strong readers and writers but not speakers, or students who have a strong command of the verbal language but have never been asked to conceptualize, let alone use, their home language in an academic setting. The overall goal of any language class should be to acquire and use language in new settings, but oftentimes our Heritage Speakers are seen as deficit-based students, as opposed to recognizing and capitalizing on the assets the bring to the learning environment. Because Heritage Language Learners are often shy, it is important to recognize reasons for shyness, and then use instructional interventions to increase confidence in their language interactions within the classroom.

The research

Check out Stephen Krashen’s article on Shyness and Heritage Language Development. Krashen argues (effectively) that unless Heritage Language Speakers are placed in the classroom with teachers who intimately understand their language acquisition needs (as opposed to forcing grammar and syntax, some of the last skills to be acquired by native speakers), they will lost interest in learning their Heritage Language because they will completely lose confidence in the abilities that they have acquired at home. (For more work by Krashen, click here, (affiliate)

What teachers can do

Teachers can, and should, employ a variety of techniques to engage Heritage Learners to take ownership of their home language, and to feel empowered by their knowledge to grow their academic skills in that language. Especially for students who enroll in high school classes in their Heritage Language and have never had any previous experience with their home language in an academic setting, the jargon associated with grammar can feel like a third language, and alienate those students immediately. Another source of alienation for reluctant Heritage Learners are students who are more familiar with the Heritage Language (because they are more recently arrived from the home country, for example), and who may ridicule the pronunciation or writing skills that the reluctant learner posses. This is why hiring teachers who understand the heritage language learner and are a good fit for the language acquisition model is key. It is also important to leverage the Heritage Language Learners as leaders within the foreign language program as an ideal program allows upper level native and non-native speakers to excel in upper level classes together.

Effective Strategies for Heritage Language Teachers

The following is a list of effective tools that Heritage Language Teachers can employ to decrease shyness and increase confidence in their students:

  • Literature circles
  • Culturally appropriate entry procedures
  • Differentiation through theme based prompts
  • Student pairing for accountability
  • Use of theme based rubrics
  • Use of mixed level groups for engagement in Accountable Talk
  • Effectively assess student language abilities in each of the four key competencies: reading, writing, speaking and listening

Looking for more work by Stephen D. Krashen, PhD? (affiliate link)

What are you doing to engage Heritage Language Learners in their academic language acquisition?

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